The Philippine Senate moved forward in its effort to strengthen the country’s air transport sector last week, adopting findings and recommendations stemming from a committee probe into Manila’s January 1 air traffic control (ATC) power outage.
Spearheaded by Sen. Grace Poe, the report cast a critical eye on the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) and its post-occurrence handling of the technical glitch, citing multiple issues, including its dual role as a regulator and operator of aerodromes and air navigation facilities. The CAAP operates and maintains 81 airports and performs oversight duties for at least seven airport facilities under various authorities. The Senate is urging Congress to pass legislation that would see CAAP abandon its aerodrome role, thus eliminating a conflict of interest.
Last week also saw senators agree on further legislative proposals, including the development of a Philippine Transportation Safety Board, the creation of competitive compensation packages to address low salaries and poor retention rates, amendments to the Passengers’ Bill of Rights, and changes to the regulator’s budget to ensure necessary funds. A January hearing revealed that the CAAP had remitted more than $411 million in dividends annually to the government since 2016, despite its exemption from the Philippines’s general dividend law.
“[These funds] could have been used to secure all the necessary equipment and upgrades to modernize its system,” the report quoted Poe as saying.
Addressing the January 1 technical glitch, the committee report cited a system failure in the engineering design, maintenance, and personnel of the communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) and air traffic management (ATM) facilities. According to an independent audit team, two events led to the ATC shutdown—the simultaneous tripping of the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units and the overvoltage of a circuit breaker.
The CAAP’s CNS/ATM infrastructure uses a parallel load-sharing two-unit UPS system that relies on a common distribution panel. In the event of an interruption to incoming power sources, a power transfer switch in the panel supplies power through an automatic voltage regulator (AVR).
The CAAP’s system operated with a faulty AVR, which authorities switched off in August 2022. Meanwhile, the authority hadn’t performed regular UPS inspections and maintenance. The mean time to repair the AVR and other critical equipment is eight hours. An inspection last month revealed that the defective AVR never underwent repairs.
Without complete redundancy of critical components, a single point of failure—either in the panel or its load—shuts down UPS functionality.
While Sumitomo-Thales previously maintained the Philippines’s CNS/ATM under warranty, the warranty expired in October 2020. Outstanding claim issues between the contractor and the Department of Transportation (DOT) further aggravated matters. Instead, for the past three years, maintenance has fallen under CAAP’s purview. In the last two years, the CAAP left the UPS system unchecked. The probe revealed that CAAP’s maintenance team lacked significant training and system knowledge and failed to flag the defective AVR as a SPOF issue.
One hour and 40 minutes into the occurrence, technicians finally switched the AVR to maintenance bypass mode to energize the UPS. Twenty minutes later, an overvoltage occurred. While investigators determined that the circuit breaker was functional, the audit team believes an overloaded breaker and a lack of overvoltage protection contributed to the power outage and damage to equipment.
Meanwhile, the CAAP’s lack of an entire CNS/ATM redundancy system, including independent internet to issue timely notams, compounded matters.
“[T]he system failure that led to the glitch started from the project’s inception in 1997 up to its present operations,” said the report. “The CNS/ATM and its system and equipment issues were handled by at least six presidents, 11 Department of Transportation and Communications Secretaries, eight CAAP directors, four assistant secretaries of the ATO [Air Transportation Office], and many batches of poorly equipped engineers under them. CAAP personnel on the ground did the best they could with the equipment, guidelines, and training given to them.”
The CAAP has now moved to acquire two new UPS units, but senators have called its plans to upgrade a “band-aid solution.” Meanwhile, the Philippines remains in talks with the U.S. over a CNS/ATM Phase 2 Project, earmarked for 2025. Discussions with the Canadian government also have begun.
Separately, the report notes that the country is falling short of meeting air navigation services standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), citing an effective implementation score of just 45.28 percent. The global average stands at 65 percent.
“If CAAP fails to address its compliance with ICAO standards, particularly air navigation, this may put the Philippines at risk again of suffering similar or worse consequences to its airline industry,” it noted.
The FAA downgraded the Philippines’s safety rating to Category 2 in 2008; the U.S. authority later reinstated its Category 1 rating in 2014. Meanwhile, the European Union blacklisted the country’s carriers from 2010 to 2013 after ICAO found significant safety concerns. The Senate is now urging the CAAP and the DOT to work toward ICAO compliance and has asked the regulator to conduct an administrative investigation to hold people accountable for the ATC outage.